Reasons to be disciplined - 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 9th April 2006.

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Aim: To teach the congregation a few general principles about church discipline.

Theme: Paul concludes his letter by addressing the particular problem of idleness in the Thessalonian church.

How would you respond if someone commanded you to do something?

A few years ago, in October 1995, a US navy ship discovered it was on a collision course with Canadian authorities. What follows is the transcript of a genuine radio conversation that took place between the Americans and the Canadians.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees north to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Recommend you direct YOUR course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the captain of a US navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No, I say again, divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the US Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north, that’s ONE FIVE degrees north, or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of the ship.
Canadians: We’re a lighthouse. Your call.

What stops most of us from taking orders is the simple fact that we are full of pride. Generally, we do not like people telling us what to believe or how we should live. Increasingly, our generation is suspicious of anyone who makes demands on anyone else.

We used to talk about an Englishman’s home as his castle but nowadays it’s not just our home that is barricaded against the intrusion of other people, it’s our belief systems, our spirituality and the way we choose to interact with other human beings – what is called our morality. The Russian novelist, Dostoevski, once said, “If God is dead everything is justifiable.” Everything is permissible if God does not exist. And isn’t this exactly what we see in our contemporary society? Why do you think we are currently witnessing the demise of objective truth in our culture? It is the logical outcome for a society that has rejected God. When you deny the existence of God you lose the basis for talking about right and wrong. And so therefore in the place of beliefs and behaviour that should be held and practiced by everyone, we are currently witnessing the triumph of personal preference instead.

But what about in our churches? We might expect the world to be suspicious of anyone who makes demands on them but how keen are contemporary Christians to listen to a voice of authority? How would you or I respond if a Christian commanded us to change our behaviour or to change our beliefs?

Have a look at verse 6. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” Or take a look at verse 10. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule (literally, this command): “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”” And then in verse 12, Paul says, “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” And then, just in case you haven’t picked up the big theme of these closing verses of 2 Thessalonians, have a look at verse 14. “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.”

Tonight our focus is on church discipline. I realise it’s not a popular topic to preach about. Even as Christians we still struggle with sinful pride and it’s true to say that many of us have also been infected by the spirit of the age. Therefore, we find topics like church discipline very difficult to stomach. But, hopefully, by the end of this sermon you will understand why the practice of church discipline is vital for you as an individual and for the church as a whole

So, let’s begin by talking about the need for church discipline.

1)      The need for church discipline (Vs 6)

Verse 6. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” The simple reason we need church discipline is because at every point in human history there will be people in local churches who deliberately and persistently refuse to believe and practice what they are told in the Bible.

We need to be clear that Christianity is not primarily about boring religious rules or bizarre religious rituals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, authentic and life-changing Christianity focuses primarily on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as King and Saviour. We are not saved by keeping a whole collection of religious rules. We are saved by asking King Jesus for mercy. We are saved by asking the one who died on a cross, to bear the penalty of our rebellion against him, for a royal pardon. But here is the truth we cannot ignore. If we want to call ourselves a Christian, we cannot trust Jesus as Saviour without also following him as King. It’s all or nothing. A Christian is someone who has decided to allow Jesus Christ to tell them what to do in every area of life. Admittedly, they may still struggle with putting his commands into practice but a Christian is someone who is determined to obey whatever Jesus says. Which, of course, raises the question, how does Jesus speak to us today?

Verse 6. Paul says, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” Do you see what Paul is claiming? He is claiming to speak as an ambassador on the behalf of King Jesus. By this point in history Jesus has returned to heaven but, before he left, he appointed key individuals to be his spokesmen. As an ambassador speaks on the behalf of a king who is not physically present, so Jesus appointed a set number of individuals, called apostles, to speak on his behalf when he was no longer around on the earth. Now to cut a long story short, we now have their teaching preserved for us in the New Testament. So if we want to hear Jesus speak to us today, which, of course, every genuine Christian wants to happen, then we will listen to the teaching in the New Testament. And then, if we are truly converted, we will put into practice what we are told.

The genuine Christian is the Christian who perseveres until the end. We are not saved by our perseverance. We are saved by Christ. But our perseverance demonstrates we are genuinely converted. So how do we make sure we persist as a Christian until the end? How do we make sure we do not drop out of the marathon before crossing the finishing line? 2:15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Or in other words, we make it to the end of the race, that is, we demonstrate we are truly converted, by putting into practice the teachings we find in the bible. A person who deliberately and persistently disobeys what they read in the Bible is heading straight for hell. Those who do not persist until the end demonstrate they were never truly converted in the first place.

But what about the people who are only just beginning to disobey what they hear taught in the Bible? What are we to do with them?  Well, this is where we need church discipline. God has graciously given us church discipline to ensure genuine Christians persevere until they meet him face to face.

I’ve used the illustration before of Christians being gathered together on a lifeboat that is heading for our heavenly destination. I think it’s one of the helpful ways of trying to understand our current Christian experience. Where are we now? We are in the lifeboat. We are heading to heaven. But, as we wait to arrive on the shores of paradise, we are currently being buffeted by the winds and the waves of outside persecution and inside deception. Now, according to 2:15, there is only one way to make it to the end. Get your feet secure and hold on tight to the teachings we find in the Bible. But what if you or I begin to lose our grip of the rail? Without church discipline our grip will get less and less secure until at last we are no longer in the boat. But, thankfully, we are not in the boat on our own and, thankfully, our hands are not the only ones clinging on for dear life. We are surrounded by other Christians who are doing the same thing. So what should happen if we begin to lose our grip? The other people in the boat should gently take our hand and reposition it so that we do not let go. Now, my friends, that is church discipline! It is God’s way of keeping us persisting to the end. And that’s why we need it. That’s why it is vital. Just consider the alternative. If we do not persevere until the end we will go to hell. The stakes are that high. So when a Christian brother or sister commands us to change our beliefs or our behaviour because they are deliberately in disobedience to the teachings of the Bible then let’s welcome what they say. Our temptation will always be to react with the stubbornness of sinful pride. Who are you to tell me what to do? But if we have correctly understood the need for church discipline we are more likely to listen to what they have to say.

2)      The authority for church discipline (Vs 6, 12)

It is to be given and received in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 6. Paul says, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers.”

And then, in verse 12, when Paul is addressing a particular group of people who are disobeying his instructions about working for a living, he says, “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”

You may have noticed that throughout 2 Thessalonians, Jesus is always referred to as the Lord Jesus. His name is mentioned 13 times in the letter but it is always preceded by the designation Lord. This is significance for two reasons. First of all, it is a very clear and direct claim that Jesus is God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, God is frequently called the Lord and so when Paul refers to Jesus as the Lord Jesus, in 2 Thessalonians, he is deliberately making the connection between the God we meet in the Old Testament and the person who is called Jesus in the New Testament. And if you ever doubt the status of Jesus in the mind of the apostle Paul then just have a look at who he prays to in 2:16: Our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father. Now it’s important not to miss the word order. Normally, God the Father is mentioned first of all in the New Testament but on certain occasions Paul mentions God the Son before God the Father. Implication? God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are on the same level of Godness.

Why does Paul write about the Lord Jesus? First of all, because it teaches us that Jesus is God. But, secondly, because it reminds us that Jesus has the authority to tell us what to do. Yes he is our saviour but he is also our Lord. He is the one who has the right to command us what we should think and how we should live.

Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, a man called Lord Melbourne, once complained, ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the private life.’

But it was another Prime Minister, this time a man called Abraham Kuyper, who many years ago was Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who described the Christian life much more accurately: He said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not say ‘It is mine.’”

Church discipline must be given and received in the name of Jesus Christ. We’ve already seen that Jesus exercises his authority today through the teaching we have preserved for us in the Bible. No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and yet disobey the clear teachings of Scripture. There is a connection between our attitude to the Bible and what we think about Jesus. If a person repeatedly disobeys what the Bible says they are not a follower of Jesus even if they claim to be. Because if a person repeatedly disobeys what the Bible teaches, do you see what they are doing? They are not just refusing to obey a church leader or an ancient book but they are deliberately choosing to disobey the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if a person does this they cannot claim to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Jesus rules his church through his word. And this is a vital truth to remember when we are called upon to practice church discipline. We can only command Christians to do something on the basis of the authority enshrined in these words. Church discipline must be given in the name of Jesus Christ and this can only happen today when the authoritative teaching of Jesus Christ is set before us. But, secondly, church discipline must be received in the name of Jesus Christ. As Christians we have handed over control of our lives to Jesus. There is no area of our existence where Jesus does not say, “That is mine.” And so therefore when a fellow Christian asks us to change either what we think or how we behave, on the basis of what the Bible teaches, we have no choice but to obey what they say.

3)      The form of church discipline (Vs 6, 14)

But what should we do if a churchgoer deliberately and persistently refuses to change their beliefs? Verse 14. “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” The next stage of church discipline involves the breaking of church fellowship. If a person keeps on refusing to obey what the Bible clearly teaches then a local church is under obligation to begin a process where their fellowship with the particular individual is reduced. The ultimate sanction is when a person is banned entirely from church fellowship but, thankfully, before the final stage of excommunication is reached there is to be a process where an individual’s intimate interaction with the church community is gradually reduced. So, for example, in verse 14, the whole church is told not to associate with anybody who refuses to obey Paul’s teaching. But then, in verse 15, they are told to keep on warning such a person as a brother. So although there is to be reduced fellowship at this stage, the church are not commanded to excommunicate these people straight away.

Now, of course, all of this raises questions about the quality of our church fellowship. If church discipline involves the removal of contact with other Christians then for it to be effective, the fellowship we enjoy with each other must be so good that when it is taken away from someone it will be missed. Which brings us to the purpose of church discipline.

4)      The purpose of church discipline (Vs 14)

Verse 14. Paul says, “Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” We are not told to cut a disobedient person off from the fellowship of other believers as an end in itself. The separation from fellowship is designed to bring a person to their senses. It is designed to make them feel ashamed of their behaviour.

In the loneliness of their individualism, away from the intimacy of the church family, our hope and our prayer is that they will repent of their disobedience and rejoin the fellowship again.

5)      The spirit of church discipline (Vs 15)

Or as Paul puts it in verse 15, “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” This is to be the spirit of church discipline. We are not to set a person adrift from the fellowship of the church with no intention of ever seeing them again. Instead, we are to use this God given means as a way of bringing a disobedient brother or sister back to their senses. If a professing Christian begins to disobey the Bible we don’t instantly assume they are not sincerely converted. It may be that over a number of years they demonstrate, by their continued disobedience, their lack of genuine devotion to the Lord Jesus. But to begin with, we are to treat them as a brother or sister who needs correction rather than as an enemy who needs to be removed from the church once and for all. 

Church discipline involves the separation from church fellowship. So let’s ask the key question: How good is our fellowship at St Johns? Is it good enough for this form of church discipline to work?

Fellowship means belonging to one another. It’s all about the unique relationships Christians are to enjoy with one another because of their shared commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. I don’t know if you have ever noticed the one another commands in the New Testament but they summarise beautifully what Christian fellowship really means. Let me read them to you. According to the Bible, this is what Christians are to do. They are…

o       Love one another (John 13:34)
o       Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:5)
o       Honour one another (Romans 12:10)
o       Rejoice with one another (Romans 12:15)
o       Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
o       Carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
o       Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32)
o       Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
o       Offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9). So even if this is not our regional culture it is to be our Christian culture. Or to put it like this, we are under obligation from the Lord Jesus himself to have other Christians around for dinner.
o       Confess our sins to one another (James 5:16)
o       Pray for one another (James 5:16)

Or to put it simply, Christian fellowship is all about sharing our lives together. And so therefore church discipline is all about separating someone from these intimate relationships until they come to their senses. It is what we would call tough love. It is a drastic step to make a vital point. But it only works if the Christian fellowship is any good.

Mark Dever is the vicar of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC and he is the author of a bestselling book called 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. He is also a man who knows how to get people’s attention. He often gets asked to speak about the importance of the local church and so, as man who likes to get peoples’ attention, he will frequently begin his lecture with the following sentence: “If you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, you may well be going to hell.” I wonder if that’s got your attention. “If you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, you may well be going to hell.” “I don’t mean for a second,” Mark goes on to explain, “that you literally have to have your name on a membership card in a church somewhere to go to heaven. I believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone. At the same, in the New Testament it seems the local church is there to verify or falsify our claims to be Christians.”  Mark’s point is that genuine Christians become committed to a local church.

They do not just attend a local church; they become committed to sharing their life with other believers in a particular place. Fellowship means belonging to one another. But for Christian fellowship to happen as it should, Christians need to be genuinely committed to a particular local church. And there is the problem many churches face today. The lack of fellowship experienced by so many is simply a reflection of the lack of commitment shown by those who attend. Unfortunately, we are a generation of consumers. A generation who, rather than settling down and truly investing ourselves in a local congregation, are more likely to merely attend a local church. We’re not into commitment. Instead, we prefer a more relaxed dating relationship with the local church.

Do you know those Christians who go to one church for the music, another for the preaching and yet another for the taste of the communion wine? What are they playing at? Multiple dating, that’s what it is. They string along a number of different local churches at the same time without being truly committed to any. But it’s not good for them and it’s not good for the local churches either.

Now I’m sure most of you agree with me. I’m sure most of you also deplore the practice of multiple dating. But what about dating itself? How many of us prefer dating to serious involvement? Or let me make it more personal. Are you someone who is dating St Johns or are you someone who is committed to St Johns as your local church? Now I’m not talking to those of you who are still exploring the Christian faith for yourself. We love having you attend as often as you possibly can. There is no pressure for you belong to this church before you believe the gospel. In fact, you cannot truly belong to this church before you believe the good news about Jesus. No, I’m talking to those of us who regularly attend St Johns as believers and what I’m asking is this: Have we truly committed ourselves to belonging to this church? And if not, why not?

There are many different ways you can show your commitment to this church and if you would like to know what those are then please ask either myself or Melvin or Nathan at the end of the service. We would love to show you what it means to be a member of St Johns.

I know church discipline is never a popular topic to preach about. But, hopefully, by now, we all realise why it is so vital for the church to practice it. It one of God’s methods for helping us persevere as Christians until we see him face to face.

So, as we finish, let’s pray that, first of all, St Johns will continue to be a church that has the courage to put these commands into practice. And then, secondly, let’s also pray that our fellowship with each other will be so good that when someone is removed from it they will miss it very much. Let’s pray together.

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